In the last issue of the Eye, we highlighted how Faversham's farmers faced disastrous labour shortages this season as EU workers stay away from Brexit Britain.
Even pre-coronavirus, growers faced letting crops rot in the fields with nobody to pick them.
Now, with Europe in lockdown, they are desperate. No longer able to import the overseas seasonal labourers to harvest their crops, Faversham farmers are looking closer to home.
“We want to help the local economy and give jobs to English people who have maybe been made redundant and we have started a recruitment drive for them,” says fruit farmer Sean Figgis. His company, long-established Faversham grower Edward Vinson Ltd, plans to advertise on roadside banners for local help.
“We’re looking for people for late April and early May when the season kicks off with strawberries,” says Sean.
Nationally, 70-90,000 workers are needed to pick fruit from early May to October. For 15 years, they have been recruited almost exclusively from Romania and Bulgaria. But Brexit and improving Eastern European economies prompted a massive decline in the number of EU fruit and veg pickers coming to the UK, even before coronavirus hit international headlines.
“We usually have 300-400 people coming in blocks to see us through the season and obviously that’s up in the air at the moment,” says Sean Figgis. “We do not know what’s going to happen. We try to be positive but realistically a lot of those people will not come.”
Edward Vinson is bracing itself for a “very difficult year”. “Fruit is not going to get picked,” says Sean. “If we can only pick a third or our production, the price will go up and we’ll have a lot of diseases in the fields because the fruit sits there rotting.”
Some growers will inevitably go under, say farming organisations who are urging the Government to fly in workers from Eastern Europe.
Some large UK farms have already chartered their own planes. Most airlines operating in Bulgaria are grounded and Romania banned all flights to and from the UK at the start of April.
“Nobody is flying,” says Sean Figgis. “I’ve looked into chartering flights. Clearly its expensive. But they’ve got to want to come here.”
And with Bulgarian news leading on the UK coronavirus crisis and British people dying in their thousands, many workers are reluctant to risk travelling here.
“If you’re a Bulgarian in a nice village that’s isolated, you might feel safer at home than coming here,” says Bulgarian-born Krasi Chakarova. As Vinson's recruitment manager, Krasi is leading the company's campaign to hire local pickers. With around 50 applicants in the first two days, including laid-off restaurant staff and workers from the construction and leisure industries, initial signs are encouraging.
As key workers, farm employees are allowed to drive to and from their jobs and working outside is safer than indoors. “Social distancing in the fields is not too hard because everyone gets their own row,” says Sean Figgis. “So they can be more than two metres apart. We try to stick to those guidelines for all current workers. Toilets are disinfected several times a day and break times are taken separately. We’re doing our part but we are also trying to keep working and keep everyone employed.”
Farmers hope the Government will clarify its Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to allow people furloughed from their jobs in other industries to take up seasonal picking work. “The offer to pay 80 percent of wages, whilst of course a good thing, will prevent many from looking for other work,” says Chris Rose.
Some, although not all, farms will hire school and college students under 18. But they must be registered with the local authority and work a limited number of hours.
“For health and safety, it's better if they are 18 or over but if someone’s over 16 and we keep an eye on their hours, we are OK to employ them,” says Sean Figgis. “If a sensible, hard-working 16-year-old comes along, I’d say these are the rules, Swale Borough Council are aware you are here, go to work, please.”
British pickers' lack of training and experience is another concern. Soft fruit crops can easily be ruined by inexperienced hands.
“The supervisors and trainers are all Eastern European and most are not here,” explains Chris Rose. “Though the work is deemed ‘unskilled’ there is skill involved in picking fruit quickly to the correct standard, and thoroughly.”
With coronavirus threatening food security around the world, there is a national effort to save UK harvests. International charity Concordia, based in Brighton, was founded during World War Two to recruit volunteer labour and finds jobs on UK farms for overseas workers. This year it planned to bring in around 10,000 workers – half from the EU and the rest from Russia, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and Barbados. But all of the non-EU countries are closed
Instead, Concordia has joined HOPS and Fruitful – two more leading ethical labour providers – to launch an initiative called Feed The Nation. The scheme allocates temporary farm work placements across the UK. By the end of March, it had received 14,000 inquiries from applicants including former service personnel, retirees and horse racing staff, with half of all applications from people who had lost their livelihoods to the pandemic.
Meanwhile British Summer Fruits and British Apples and Pears, national organisations representing growers, have set up an interactive map on their websites showing jobs available.
But the farm labour crisis is not confined to the UK. Time is also running out for our European neighbours before fruit and vegetables rot. France is struggling to find the 200,000 workers it needs for its picking season. Germany’s harvest is also under threat from travel bans, with the country's agriculture association BOGK warning: “What is not harvested cannot be processed...supplies for the population would no longer be secure from summer 2020.”
Jeopardised by recent political decisions, British food production has suddenly become vital as the country struggles to deal with an unprecedented outbreak.
“Hopefully we can help everybody out, harvest the crops and give everyone lots of jobs,” says Sean Figgis. “Our work must go on because we need to feed the country.”
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